It is a hot afternoon in East Austin, where more than 20 teens are gathered in a grassy backyard under a clear blue sky, tackling an issue that has touched each and every one of them: bullying.
“Not doing anything is the same thing as letting it happen,” a high school sophomore tells the group when another young woman shares a story about a girl in her community who attempted suicide after being tormented by her peers. The teens are here today via an organization called Gear Up, participating in an anti-bullying workshop with Refinery29 and Columbia University School of the Arts' Digital Storytelling Lab. SXSW events are still in full swing all over town, but this is perhaps the only place where a new generation is raising ideas about how to disrupt what has become a truly destructive everyday cycle.
About twenty minutes in, a new member quietly slides into a plastic folding chair and the energy of the small space shifts as people begin to recognize who just sat down. Clad in a silky fringed jacket and bedazzled blue jeans, Kesha initially looks like just another young person, late to the meet up. And in a way, she is: Those familiar with her personal story know how bullying and harassment have impacted her both online and IRL.
“I’ve dealt with mental illness in my life,” she says when it’s her turn to speak.“People should know that a single online comment has sent me into a depression spiral.” And if she could go back and change anything about her own experiences with bullying?
“I wish I would have been more honest about it,” she reflects. Presumably, because it’s only through opening up and telling the truth that the hurt has started to heal over.
When Kesha returned to the stage last summer at the Billboard Music Awards, sounding less like the ingenue she used to be and more like the powerhouse artist she is fighting to become, we only wanted one thing: more. And while we're still waiting for her to fully return to the spotlight, the 30-year-old artist will be surfacing a bit this spring — with upcoming performances in Illinois, New Jersey, and Arkansas, and this quick stop in Austin for SXSW. After today’s anti-bullying workshop, she’ll be sitting down for an exclusive Q&A with Refinery29's own Amy Emmerich on the same subject.
In advance of that conversation, we spoke with the still rising star about another subject she's become an expert on over the years: online harassment. Find out what she had to say about beating bullies, staying creatively sane, and living under our nation's newly-installed troll-in-chief below.
How do you protect your own creativity and energy, both online and off?
The world is a beautiful and magical place when you participate in it fully. As people have become constantly tied to the internet through smartphones and other devices, I feel like the lines between virtual reality and real life have become increasingly blurred. You can do everything online now from shopping to dating to having and maintaining friendships.
But I don’t think that many of these activities can fully be appreciated when experienced online only: I feel like, especially with personal relationships, it’s important to ground yourself in the moment, to look someone in the eye while having a conversation or sharing an experience — that is something that can’t be replicated.
I don’t want to live my life virtually, because I think that ultimately those virtual experiences will never compare to the real thing. I’m happiest when I’m in the moment with another human, and especially when I am connecting with nature. Our natural world is more amazing than anything on a screen. When you lose sight of that, and you spend you life focused on a screen comparing yourself to other people, it can trigger depression.
These days, musicians and artists have a huge megaphone in the world. What are the issues you feel like you have a responsibility to speak on?
I think that one positive thing about social media is that everyone has a platform to have their own voice heard. I feel it’s my right as a woman and an entertainer to speak out about the issues I am passionate about. I am most passionate about the issues surrounding equality; I believe that every living thing is equally important and every person deserves the same freedoms and human rights as every other person. I will always stand up for LGBT rights, women's rights, minority rights, or anyone who has their basic human rights challenged.
Trolls have become an ingrained component of internet culture. What the best way to deal with them, in your experience?
Trolls are only powerful if you let them be. Most of the time, I think trolls are just insecure people projecting their own insecurities and problems onto others. I know it’s hard to ignore trolls when they are attacking you personally, and I have had a hard time with trolls because I am an emotional person. But I try to remind myself that these are just people hiding behind a screen, saying things they would never say to your face. I try to limit the power of trolls by just ignoring them and limiting the time I spend with social media.
Do you think that dealing with haters and trolls online has thickened your skin — and is that always a good thing?
I am a very emotional being. I harness my emotions when I write music and I believe that tapping into your emotions is how you create great art, so I haven’t really thickened my skin. But I have learned to try to take other people's’ opinions with a grain of salt. Over the years, I’ve gained a certain level of self confidence. I know that I’m a good person, so it’s easier to not let someone else mean comments bring me down. But I admit: It’s not easy. I also know that many people don’t see celebrities as real human beings, so when some people say mean things about someone in the public spotlight it’s often more aimed at someone’s idea of me rather than me directly as a person.
There are people who would contend that Donald Trump is a troll. What do you think?
I think he is the commander-in-chief of the trolls. Our president is supposed to represent our entire country. Under Obama, I was proud that we had an intelligent, distinguished, and kind man speaking on our behalf; under Trump we have someone who uses divisive, cruel, and sometimes racist rhetoric while speaking as the leader of the United States.
When people, and especially kids, see the president acting so negatively towards others, I think that it can cause them to justify similar behavior in their own lives — and that’s not okay. We need a leader who promotes unity and acceptance, who treats others how they themselves would want to be treated. It’s sad to me that our president refuses to do that. The silver lining to me is I have seen millions of Americans come together against Trump in the name of acceptance and unity to fight against his bullying behavior.